The Heartbreaking Toll of Addiction & Mental Illness Combined

The Heartbreaking Toll of Addiction & Mental Illness Combined

A Worried Mother & an Addicted Son

Barbara Theodosiou isn’t a household name. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find many people outside of a particular community who know her name. That doesn’t change the fact that she’s fighting a life or death battle.

“There is no peace for me. Ever again. This is a life sentence,” Barbara uttered during a speech in Oakland Park, FL. She was talking about the impact her son Daniel’s death has had on her life and work.

the addicts mom
image via The Addict’s Mom

Barbara Theodosiou is the founder of a support group called The Addict’s Mom. She started it in 2008 to help other families struggling with addiction. Since 2008, The Addict’s Mom has exploded. What started as a small Facebook group has grown to monumental proportions – 30,000 members and chapters in each of the fifty states.

Still, when Barbara lost Daniel, a twenty-three year old boy struggling with addiction and mental illness, none of her group’s success mattered. She was simply heartbroken that her child, who had been missing for a week, was gone.

Daniel passed away in April. She’s still awaiting the toxicology report. Over the last few months, Barbara has thrown herself all the more into advocating for mental health and substance abuse treatment reform.

She’s using Daniel’s story and her own heartache to raise awareness of the dangers individuals with co-occurring disorders face. She’s committed to reforming a broken system – the mental health and addiction treatment industry as it pertains to schools, jails, and youth.

This is her story.

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The Addict’s Mom

Barbara’s path to mental health advocate isn’t a straight line. She never set out to reform anything. She was just a mother struggling with her two sons’ addictions.

Her eldest child, Peter, was addicted to both painkillers and heroin. He abused them throughout his teenage years before getting sober. Today, he’s been in recovery for a number of years, has graduated college, and is doing well.

Daniel, on the other hand, is a tragic example of the deadly toll addiction and mental illness have on families. From as far back as elementary school, Daniel struggled with isolation and social issues.

Barbara took her son to see a psychiatrist at twelve. The doctor didn’t diagnosis Daniel with any specific mental illness, instead suggesting he potentially suffered from a few. These included ADD and Asperger’s Syndrome.

Soon, Daniel followed in his older brother’s footsteps and began abusing drugs. He escalated from over the counter medicines to just about anything he could get his hands on. Barbara believes he was self-medicating with substances.

That makes sense considering at school Daniel wasn’t offered much in the way of mental health treatment. There was no compassion or understanding when he got in trouble. There were only punitive measures like detention.

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An Ineffective System Led to Daniel’s Death

Of course that’s a vast oversimplification. Death from substance abuse and mental illness isn’t due to any single factor. Rather, it’s an amalgamation of several factors. In Daniel’s case, the largest was the incredibly ineffective mental health system in schools, jails, and even institutions.

And he wasn’t alone. Close to 9 million Americans suffer from a co-occurring disorder. Only 7%, or 630,000 people, are treated for both. While that number seems high, consider that 56%, or almost 5 and a half million people, are treated for neither.

Okay, let’s think about this for a second. There are 9 million people who’re struggling with both addiction and mental illness. Close to 5 and a half million receive no treatment at all. For either. That’s negligent in the extreme.

child dies of drug overdose
image via The Addict’s Mom

What about those with mental illness in jails and institutions? Well, according to the US Department of Justice, 56% of those in state prisons suffer from mental health issues. 45% of those in federal prison and 64% of those in jail suffer from mental health issues.

Those are incredibly large numbers. Something isn’t right here. In fact, something is very, very wrong.

That’s where The Addict’s Mom is focusing the majority of their advocacy. Among other tactics, they’ve submitted a bill to the Florida State Congress that would make it illegal to arrest an individual who’s currently in a psych ward.

The bill is born from Barbara’s direct experience. In late 2014, Daniel was receiving care from the psychiatric unit in St. Lucie Medical Center. While there, he allegedly assaulted a security officer.

The assault landed Daniel in jail and triggered to a chain of events which culminated in his death in April.

Barbara isn’t alone in her loss. Many members of The Addict’s Mom have lost children to either addiction or mental illness. Sherry Schlenke, one of these mothers, had a son who struggled with heroin addiction for twenty years before passing away a year and a half ago.

Barbara, Sherry, and the rest of those involved in the Florida chapter of The Addict’s Mom sent a letter to the legal team that prosecuted Daniel. In it, Barbara wrote,

“All I can do now is tell his story to the world in the hopes that I am able to make the smallest change in a broken system that houses the mentally ill in violent jails” (Gant Daily).

Small or not, some change is desperately needed. Let’s just hope it comes soon.

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